Commercial space race: US lags Europe

It was a major battlefront in the Cold War, but the space race has moved on from a battle between the U.S. and Russia, to a contest between companies to get ahead in the lucrative commercial space market.

The $320 billion commercial space market is a broad one but mainly relates to communication satellites, which draws in revenues of $195 billion, according to the Satellite Industry Association (SIA).

The space market has traditionally been dominated by government funded projects, leaving little room for a wide variety of players. But the sector is opening up as private companies rush to fill in the gaps left by government spending cutbacks.

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Andrew Rich | Vetta | Getty Images

"Everyone is looking to bring down the cost of space programs because it is incredibly expensive," Ben Bourne, aerospace analyst at Liberum, told CNBC in a phone interview.

The European Space Agency and the U.K. Space Agency will be among national and private bodies and companies at the Farnborough Airshow to discuss their activities as the space race heats up.

SpaceX threat

Airbus has been the dominant player in the industry for some time, leading a consortium of companies to build the Ariane space rocket, with the first model being operational in 1979. But the industry has been shaken up by the entry of Elon Musk's SpaceX, which as has successfully created lower cost rockets known as Falcon 9 and Dragon.

SpaceX focuses on low manufacturing and operational costs and in 2012 Musk fired a warning shot at the Ariane project, telling BBC News that it had "no chance" against his spacecraft.

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Last month, Airbus and Safran, the French aerospace companies, announced plans to team up and work on space launchers to fight off challenges from SpaceX.

"Airbus is thinking that if they want to survive and continue to dominate, they need to transform into something different and cannot afford to have the same type of Europe space structure," Damien Lasou, global managing director of aerospace and defence at Accenture, told CNBC in a phone interview.

"When you look at the market share, the Europeans are the dominant player. Ariane is now in the position of being the incumbent dominant but with challengers coming from the U.S."

Airbus and the European Space Agency who commission the building of Ariane, are working on an upgraded model that will be released over the next few years, with the aim at cutting costs and making it cheaper to fly.

US space market rise

Revenues from the satellite launch industry rose between 2010 and 2012 but dropped in 2013 to $3 billion from $3.8 billion the year before, but revenues from U.S. players continued to rise, according to the SIA. While Europe continued to dominate, U.S. companies are clearly catching up.

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This trend could continue as geopolitical tensions with Russia mean U.S. companies turn away from Russian space launchers and look at the domestic market, according to analyst.

"The current dynamic with the Russian has put a new dent on all of this," Wayne Plucker, director of aerospace and defense at Frost and Sullivan, told CNBC in a phone interview.

"I think everybody is looking for alternatives to the Russians so I think this is one of those offerings could be SpaceX. Whether they can compete is another matter."

- By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal